I still have hope that the idealistic young social networkers who organized the Egyptian revolt can propel their country into an unprecedented era of representative government. But that hope hangs by a thread.
Although Mubarak announced Tuesday, after a week of protests, that he won't run again in September, he clearly wants to retain power until the presidential election. This raises the suspicion that he will try to manipulate the results and prevent real competition.
The army, which many believed was tilting toward the protesters, now appears to back Mubarak's plan to hold on until the fall. Its troops stood by passively as government goons rained incendiary devices down on Tahrir Square.
So what are the odds that something positive will still emerge from the Egyptian uprising? Uncertain. However, Arab leaders can't squash today's rebels the way they did past reformers. Times have changed.
I traveled around the Arab world in 2005, when the last Arab democracy wave was in flower, talking to enthusiastic reform advocates in Damascus, Amman and Cairo. In Egypt, Mubarak finally permitted reformers to run an opposition candidate for president, Ayman Nour, but his campaign was stifled, and he was tossed in jail after election day.
In Jordan, Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher and his team produced an ambitious national agenda for political reform, but it was abandoned as soon as it was finished; the pressure came from the elite, eager to preserve its privileges. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad briefly permitted opposition debate, then decided it was too risky and shut it down.
These reform efforts all originated at the top, not at the grass roots. They were also spurred on by the administration of President George W. Bush, when America seemed at the height of its power.
But by mid-2005, the Iraq war was going sour; Bush's Arab democracy campaign was viewed by Arabs as having unleashed chaos in Baghdad. Arab reformers repeatedly told me that Iraq's chaos was giving democracy a "bad name" and tarring those who accepted U.S. funds for their organizations. The Iraq debacle gave Arab autocrats an excuse to clamp down.
In 2011, however, the Egyptian protests have nothing to do with U.S. pressure or funding. They were organized by Egyptian youths, many educated and jobless, who used social-media networks to get the message out.
In a country where a youth bulge skews the population toward the under-30s, no leader can ignore these demographics. Moreover, the heady experience these young people have enjoyed in the last week, of taking responsibility for their fate and achieving astonishing results, won't be forgotten.
These youths won't go meekly back home to stew over their joblessness - and over a government that won't treat them with the respect they have earned.
So, Mubarak has a choice.
He can work with the army and civilian groups to set up an interim caretaker government that would devise fair rules for a free election in September. That would also permit vital time and space for non-Islamist parties to get organized.
Or he can revert to old-style police tactics of beating up his opponents, in hopes of rigging the rules for the election.
Mubarak appears to have chosen Option Two. He's assuming that the chaos he has unleashed will persuade the broad public to back him in hopes of restoring stability. But the genie of rebellion is out of the bottle.
The longer the violence continues, the more likely that newly energized Egyptian youths will become radicalized and that Islamic groups will take advantage of their anger. The longer the violence goes on, the more likely the army will split, with the rank-and-file refusing to fire on the rebels if asked. Down that road lies real chaos.
Clearly, Mubarak isn't listening to President Obama's pleas to refrain from violence and get the transition moving. I've agreed with Obama's reluctance to call publicly for Mubarak to quit, lest this convey an image of another U.S. effort at regime change. But the time has come to deliver a clear message in private to Mubarak and his generals: His continued presence in office is going to drag his country down.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.